'Mining is God': Family fear for future of natural springs

A Queensland man fears natural springs enjoyed by generations of his family will be destroyed by an open-pit coal mine being constructed just 11 kilometres away.

Coedie McAvoy, a Wangan and Jagalingou man, said the Doongambulla Springs were believed by his ancestors to be so sacred that people would only visit on “special occasions”.

Now muddied by cattle grazing, the ancient springs, north of the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland, are part of a pastoral lease, but Mr McAvoy fears construction of the Carmichael coal mine by energy giant Bravus could see them drained.

The Doongmabulla Springs with lilies on the surface.
The Doongmabulla Springs have been visited by generations off Coedie McAvoy's family. Source: Tom Jefferson

“It's dangerous to the environment, it’s dangerous to our spiritual beliefs, because we believe that Doongambulla Springs is the final resting place of the rainbow serpent, the Mundunjudra” Mr McAvoy said.

“If that's interrupted, then that destroys our spiritual belief.

“That's our, that's our sacred place, it's like the cathedral in London or something like that."

Miner says spring water cannot drop below 20cm

Bravus, formerly Adani Australia, say conditions attached to the mining project state the Doongambulla Springs cannot drop by more than 20cm.

As they dig, water will be extracted to prevent the mine from filling up, and this they say will be drawn from a source below the springs called the Betts Creek beds.

An Indigenous man washing his hair with the water from Doongmabulla Springs.
Wangan and Jagalingou believe the Doongambulla Springs are where the Rainbow Serpent came to rest. Source: Christine Schindler

Required by government to determine the source aquifer feeding the Doongambulla Springs, Bravus say it was identified as being an underground deposit of clematis sandstone.

This importantly is separated from the mine by a 250 to 300-metre layer of geological units including claystone, which water struggles to penetrate, but also sandstone.

The layer, known as the Rewan Formation, will be relied upon to act as an aquitard, preventing water drawdown occurring in the springs as the beds below are drained.

While government has accepted Bravus’s management plan, many prominent geologists believe further investigation is needed.

A chart showing the different layers of rock between the spring and the mine.
Bravus say the springs are protected by a geological layer of stone, however some scientists say questions remain unanswered. Source: Bravus

If there is an unidentified connection through the Rewan Formation between the aquifer feeding the springs and the Betts Creek beds, this could see them dry up, warns Flinders University’s Professor of Hydrogeology Adrian Werner.

He is concerned that Bravus have only investigated the security of the Rewan Formation around the spring site, which he characterises as “an oversight.”

Understanding the wider geology around the springs, Professor Werner argues is “one of the hardest questions to answer on Earth” and he retains concerns about both the mine's approval process and gaps in the science supporting it.

Attempting to untangle its complexity and accumulate baseline knowledge of the springs, he is leading an Australian Research Council funded project backed by a group of researchers from diverse backgrounds.

The institutions involved include Monash University, RMIT, University of Queensland, La Trobe University and Charles Darwin University, as well as natural resource mangers Coast and Country who are onboard as an industry partner and have previously faced Adani in court.

"We're independent, so if it turns out that Adani has no impact on the springs, fine, I'll tell you that," Professor Werner said.

"If it turns out they do, I'll tell you that too.

"I think studying the springs with the group that we have, brings a level of independence that we hope, adds value to the studies that have been done so far."

Miner raises questions as researchers continue study

Bravus, who were invited to participate in the research, have questioned the involvement of Coast and Country, arguing their association with the project “means it is not independent”.

The company said they believe the study is being partially funded by an “anti-fossil fuel lobby group” to try and stop their coal mine at Carmichael proceeding.

“Coast and Country has a history of trying to stop the Carmichael Project, using failed legal actions and publicity stunts,” a Bravus spokesperson said.

Derec Davies from Coast and Country said it is important to him that the research is being conducted at arms length to ensure that the science can speak for itself, as any influence would be “improper”.

“The project welcomes Adani should they wish to be involved,” he said.

Mining 'significant threat' to ecological site

As well as being a cultural site, the Doongambulla Springs are home to wetland described by the Queensland government as “nationally important”.

The springs have been a lifeline to wildlife during drought and are the only place on Earth where the waxy cabbage palm is naturally found.

A drought affected landscape with cracked earth.
Around the world, natural springs continue to flow even during drought. Source: Getty

RMIT Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, Matthew Currell, has joined Professor Werner in studying the area’s geology and believes the mine could pose a “significant threat” to the springs and cause them to dry up or lose flow.

The result would be the loss of an entire ecosystem.

“These springs have what we call endemic species associated with them,” he said.

“You'd be wiping species off the map that don't have anywhere else that they currently inhabit.”

A field of waxy cabbage palms.
Endangered waxy cabbage palms are found in the area surrounding Doongambulla Springs. Source: Matthew Currell

Bravus maintain that protecting the springs' ecological value is a priority and they have more than 100 monitoring bores drilled around the site to ensure their mining is sustainable.

“The Carmichael Project has some of the strictest environmental conditions ever imposed on a mining project in Australia,” a Bravus spokesperson said.

'In this country mining is God'

With the mine now progressing, Bravus say they are “dedicated to continuing to work in partnership” with Traditional Owners, guided by Indigenous Land Use Agreements.

This includes providing a minimum $250 million in Indigenous business development and contracting, as well as a number of other Indigenous employment targets.

Their community relationship does not appear to extend to Mr McAvoy or his father Adrian Burragubba, who lost a battle in court to stop the mine, and was bankrupted by them.

“We note that Mr Coedie McAvoy and his father Adrian Burragubba, along with their minority faction, do not represent the majority Wangan and Jagalingou Native Title claimants and they are not authorised representatives of the majority of Native Title claimants,” a Bravus spokesperson said.

“We are very supportive of the Wangan and Jagalingou People undertaking traditional activities, and as a responsible landholder we will continue to ensure that when traditional owners do wish to access our site or land, they are able to do so in a planned, safe, legal and respectful manner.”

Adrian Burragubba applying traditional paint to a boy's face.
Adrian Burragubba has clashed with Adani over their plans to build a coal mine on his traditional lands. Source: Getty

Mr McAvoy characterises Bravus’s claim over his country as just the latest chapter in a history of dispossession affecting his family.

His ancestors were rounded up by the government in 1916, and sent to a mission at Cherbourg where they were forbidden to speak their language or practice their culture, or spiritual beliefs.

Now that Mr McAvoy has returned to his traditional lands, he says the native title system has required him to prove an unbroken connection to country, while foreign-owned Bravus is allowed to mine the area with government support.

“When we come back out here, we're dispossessed people, we've been dispossessed from our country, and I'm back now, and I'm fighting for my country,” he said.

“The government is denying us again... it’s colonialisation 2.0.

“In this country mining is God.”

Attempts were made via Queensland South Native Title Services (QSNTS) to contact the Wangan and Jagalingou Native Title Claimants, now known as Clermont-Belyando, but they did not respond before deadline.

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